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Living the Life in Death Valley

Community: Without 'adventurous spirit,' says one of its 525 desert dwellers, loneliness, boredom quickly take over.

June 10, 2001|LEWIS ABRAHAM LEADER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DEATH VALLEY — It's triple-digit hot about five months of the year. There is no doctor, dentist or drugstore, no fast food or video store. No barbershop, beauty salon, movie theater.

The nearest shopping is an hour's drive away in Pahrump, Nev., a town with two stoplights. The closest high school is 45 miles from here in Beatty, Nev. Las Vegas, the next city of any size, is more than two hours by car.

It takes a certain kind of person to thrive here. Kathleen Bankston is one.

"You have to embrace it," says Bankston, who hires workers for local resorts. "You have to care about the volunteer fire department, . . . about our [staff] parties, . . . about all of the little things that go into making this our home."

Bankston, 37, came from Ohio. She rejected her current job when it was first offered, then took it two months later. She changed her mind after hiking on 15 square miles of sand dunes near the Stovepipe Wells Village resort. That was three years ago.

"Lots of people say, 'I can do this,' " Bankston says. But "if a person can't just be happy sitting with themselves for an evening, then they can't do it here."

People come to the hottest spot in North America (Saturday's high was 114) to be close to nature, to find solitude and to live cheaply. To put a former life in the rear-view mirror.

Tradition says Death Valley got its ominous name from a pioneer whose group stumbled upon it in error 150 years ago and, lacking food and water, barely got out alive.

But beauty abounds in this arid wilderness, now a 3,000-square-mile national park--largest in the continental United States and home to about 525 people. Nearly all of them work for the park or a resort within its boundaries.

The surrounding mountains, with snow on their peaks often into mid-May, radiate shades of orange, violet, yellow and red depending upon season, weather and time of day. There are countless hiking trails and 350 miles of dirt road.

"I like to go to the darkest spot I can find, with a glass of wine, and count the stars," says Betty Oliver, 53, hostess at Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch Resort, the main accommodations here.

And Death Valley overflows with life: about 1,000 plant species and 450 kinds of animals, in terrain that ranges from 282 feet below sea level to more than 11,000 feet.

Sitting at a picnic table during a community party alongside the world's lowest golf course--214 feet below sea level--Charles Draggs explains why he left a job as an IRS tax examiner in Las Vegas to move here five years ago.

"It's fantastic living in the desert," says Draggs, 53, who works in purchasing at Furnace Creek. "It changes daily. Actually, it changes three or four times a day," depending mostly on where the sun is.

He even likes the inferno of summer. "There's no rain. . . . It's more or less a dry heat."

Does he miss anything? "Really, nothing. I have everything I need to function day-to-day," he says.

Desert dwellers find possibilities unthinkable in most urban settings.

Every year, Sharon Funck, a server in the Furnace Creek steakhouse, makes a solitary overnight hike of 25 miles to Stovepipe Wells (first, she drops large containers of water every few miles along her route). She began these journeys to overcome a fear of sleeping in the desert alone. Now the 53-year-old does it to welcome spring.

But amenities are few. Furnace Creek's motel-style ranch, where Funck works, is the hub of life here, the closest thing to a town center. It has restaurants, a bar, a general store, an exercise room and a spring-fed swimming pool (water temperature: 82 degrees).

"You don't run to the pizza parlor or the bagel factory or go to Long's," says Cal Jepson, 55, general manager of Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells, all run by Amfac Parks and Resorts. "There's a bunch of junk that goes out of your life."

In her old life in Ohio, Bankston used to stop at the supermarket for a loaf of bread and end up spending 20 times what she'd planned, on this and that. Those days are gone.

Others don't miss what they never had.

Samantha Berry, 18, a Death Valley resident since age 5, doesn't feel mall-deprived. "It's not that I've had the experience of driving down the street and having a shopping center right at my hands."

Holli Angelo is 15. She and her friends "go shopping together and have a fun day in Vegas" several times a month, she says.

Athletic events keep many Death Valley teenagers away on weekends. Others work part time for the National Park Service. In their spare time, they swim and golf. Many show a special appreciation of the outdoors.

Samantha Berry recalls running to her favorite spot in the desert one recent day. "This mountain behind us was just a silhouette of this beautiful orange and blue, lighting up the mountains. . . . You're just, 'Wow!' " she says.

Bankston says it this way: "This place is not man-made . . . it's very inspiring. . . . You turn inward more here. You do more thinking and you do more soul-searching, because you are able to."

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